2. The Things Take Over
As you can see, many of the shots reproduced here are inserts; that is, they are shots of objects or parts of the human body other than the face. Now particular cases of Fritz Lang's use of inserts have often been commented upon, but an interesting point that has not been brought out is the amount of inserts he used. When he started directing after World War I, the best American directors, following on from D.W. Griffith's example, were already making use of a fair number of insert shots in their films to make dramatic and expressive points. In fact at the beginning of the nineteen-twenties it was quite common for 5 percent of the shots in an American film to be inserts, and in some films even up to 10 percent. Some of the bright young European directors immediately caught on to the possibilities of the use of the insert and followed the American lead. Fritz Lang was among them, and there was nothing special from a dramatic point of view in his use of insert shots, or in the amount he used, at any rate until the last two years of the decade.
However, by the latter part of the 'twenties a new trend towards even greater use of inserts had developed, this time led by the so-called European avant-garde. (Actually, in present day terms, the kind of films in question, typified by Kirsanov's Menilmontant (1926), would be referred to as "art films", as opposed to the truly avant-garde efforts of say Man Ray.) In these films the much increased number of insert shots mostly appeared in continuous strings, either with dissolves between them, or more rarely cut straight together, so making up the newly fashionable "montage sequences".
But when Fritz Lang too began to use more inserts, from Spione (1928) onwards, he did not put most of them in montage sequences, but introduced them, as had been the earlier custom, as single shots into the middle of scenes, at a more or less relevant point. In Spione 17 percent of the shots are inserts, and from any ordinary conception of film narration many of them are gratuitous; isolating objects whose function is already obvious of of no great interest.
With the coming of sound the use of inserts decreased sharply in nearly all films, since they had largely been used as a roundabout way of conveying information that it is possible to convey more quickly and subtly by the combination of dialogue and behaviour. But Fritz Lang's first sound film, M, is quite exceptional in having even more inserts (19 percent) than he had used in his last silent film. And in this particular case they are all well applied. Not content with this, in his next film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, he went even further, and more than a quarter of the shots in this film are of things rather than people. This was some kind of record for mainstream cinema, and again Lang had reached a situation where a substantial proportion of the insert shots were nonfunctional, this time irretrievably. On the evidence available it seems to me that the proportion of inserts used in an ordinary narrative film cannot rise above 20 percent without some them holding up the movement of the film, while at the same time not contributing anything extra to it. While I do not know if Lang consciously drew this conclusion as well, it is quite certain that he retreated from this extreme, and all of his subsequent films have less than 15 percent inserts.
However, to have inserts making up even 15 percent of the shots is quite exceptional for a sound film, the usual upper limit being about 10 percent, and to get so many into a film in a meaningful way requires some special construction of the script at the writing stage. This was one of the main features of Lang's involvement in the scripting of his films, as is proved by the fact that in The Ministry of Fear, the only one of his Hollywood films for which he was forced to accept the script as already written without his participation, the proportion of inserts quite exceptionally falls as low as 5 percent. So we can say that, with respect to this dimension of film form, and taking their context into account, Lang's sound films are more unusual than his silent films. Nevertheless, the actual way Lang used inserts in his sound films was till completely in the silent film tradition, leaving aside the purely decorative use of some inserts which I have already illustrated. Even the more complex examples in Lang's films, which have often been discussed, such as the arrow brooch belonging to the murdered prostitute which the hero in Manhunt turns into a weapon to kill her murderer, have their models in silent cinema. One such example of the dual function object featured in insert shots in silent films, just the latest of many I have seen, occurs in Tod Browning's Outside the Law (1921). In this film the criminal protagonist makes a kite for a little child, and later the crossed sticks of the frame of the now broken kite cast the shadow of a crucifix on the floor to recall him from his wrongful ways. Such devices were already the aim of the smartest American filmmakers as early as 1917, but Fritz Lang's diagonal decorations of the frame were all his own.